On the Worst President

In the sweepstakes for which of our presidents was the worst, the usual candidates are James Buchanan, Andrew Johnson, and Warren Harding. When William Jefferson Clinton left office, I wrote an opinionated piece in which I maintained that not only was Clinton the worst man ever to be president, but he was also the worst president. Subsequent popular lore seems to have decided that, even if both are true, we can’t be judgmental. Our modern culture has no “objective” standards to make such rash distinctions.

Sometime after that piece of Schall dicta, I had lunch with the late Joseph Sobran, a man of unusually definite views. I told him of my view. He listened patiently. After a bit, he replied: “Worst man, yes; but not the worst president.” Naturally, I bit and asked about the worst. And unsurprisingly, if you knew Sobran’s mind, the worst turned out to be “Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt.” I could only laugh.

But Sobran’s sober view was based on the abuse of presidential powers that he saw initiated by these two presidents. They bypassed Congress. Eventually, they were backed by the Supreme Court, creating what we now call the “living constitution.” This latter, not the written one, is what allows a president like Mr. Obama, with his much overused pen, to issue decrees and executive orders of almost any kind.

With these decrees, he has made our military into social engineering agencies, not fighting cadres. When these arbitrary directives did not work, the presidential option of not enforcing selective existing laws that fell under his responsibility proved remarkably effective in undermining the culture.

Almost everyone today, including Mr. Obama himself, has offered some “evaluation” of his presidency. Kevin Williamson remarked that Mr. Obama thought that the job of the president was “to make speeches.” George Will said that Mr. Obama was the most loquacious president we ever had. The trouble was that he really did not have much to say. Victor Davis Hanson looked at the areas in which serious world problems existed. Mr. Obama neglected many of these and made others worse.

From the first time I saw Mr. Obama, his First Inaugural, I said to myself, “This is a classical tyrant” and wrote an article to that effect. Now, a classical “tyrant” is not some brutal beast. Rather, he is popular, suave, smooth-talking, and ruled only by his own musings. He arises in a democracy when its citizenry have largely lost touch with natural being.


Mr. Obama’s notion of America was that into which he wanted to change it. The America of the Founders or the tradition did not much interest him. Indeed, this America was what had to be changed to make the world safe for the America that he was out to re-found, one that looked pretty much like himself. And, to give him credit, he succeeded in many ways. His Muslim and community organizing backgrounds were both traditions that had almost nothing to do with what we once understood to be Western civilization, with its unique American gloss.

Much will be written of the Obama legacy. He will no doubt quickly sign a lucrative contract to produce a book explaining the glory of these past eight years, awful as they were. While most folks have understood that things were falling apart at the most basic levels, Mr. Obama, in his own mind, saw them progressing from one success to another. He flew over it but he never really saw America. His basic character was pretty accurately described by Plato and Aristotle. Like Mr. Clinton, he probably would have been elected for a third and fourth term were it not for the reaction to, yes, Franklin Roosevelt and the two-term limitation.

I will pass over his religious views. His is a popular leftism that identifies religion as politics. Catholics were slow to recognize the efforts Mr. Obama made to identify religion and positive law. No leeway was left. Religion could not stand in the way of social “progress.” Who could have imagined even a decade ago that the freedom of speech and the freedom of religion traditions would be under fire for holding back the social engineering that Mr. Obama and his friends foisted on the country’s embassies, laws, military, healthcare, medicine, schools, environment, and even in the food we can’t eat.

But is there nothing good that this still relatively young man accomplished? The comedian Jack Benny was once famously confronted by a robber who insistently demanded, “Your money, or your life!” To which Benny replied, “I’m thinking! I’m thinking!” Mr. Obama has made it necessary for us to recall a whole order of being that was relentlessly overturned step by logical step. Do I think that this countrywide recollection is taking place? “I’m thinking! I’m thinking!”

James V. Schall, S.J. (1928-2019), who served as a professor at Georgetown University for thirty-five years, was one of the most prolific Catholic writers in America. Among his many books are The Mind That Is Catholic, The Modern Age, Political Philosophy and Revelation: A Catholic Reading, Reasonable Pleasures, Docilitas: On Teaching and Being Taught, Catholicism and Intelligence, and, most recently, On Islam: A Chronological Record, 2002-2018.

  • On Hell - Monday, February 25, 2019